Erin Fitzgerald, a staff member of HDI is wearing a blue flannel and holding a washboard to make music. they are on a blue background with HDI's logo in the top left.

“All people offer perspective that is valuable to the rest of the world.” HDI Staff Erin Fitzgerald speaks on their experience with Neurodiversity and mental health

The following article discusses suicide, which some readers may find distressing. 

Erin Fitzgerald could always see the signs that she was different growing up – the tools to recognize how simply didn’t exist yet.  

“I grew up in an era where mental health was talked about very differently from how it is talked about today. There are some similarities and holdovers, but a lot of differences too,” Fitzgerald, who also identifies as queer and uses she/they pronouns, said. “In the 70s and 80s, I do not remember any conversation around mental health or counseling that did not feel totally pathologized. I do not remember myself or anyone else getting referred to talk with someone or getting assessed for something based on how we were doing or how we were feeling inside. I would only hear about mental health if someone were seen as causing a problem for other people, or seen as a problem themselves.”  

Fitzgerald also grew up in a household with a parent who was diagnosed with a severe mental illness, who did not have the same options for support and resources that exist today. “It makes me sad to think about this, because my dad struggled quite a bit and had a hard time finding the right kind of support,” she shared. “He ultimately died by suicide, which is an all-too-common scenario when people do not have the support that they need to address their mental health issues. I cannot help but wonder if he were living in a different time, and if he could have found the kind of support that exists now, how things might have gone differently.”  

Fitzgerald, who works with HDI as the CTP Coordinator with HDI’s Supported Higher Education Partnership, has had her own journey with mental health. She has had family that struggled, has worked as a support provider, and has sought support from the system as well. She was given multiple diagnoses before finally being assessed for autism and sensory processing disorder as an adult.  

“It wasn’t until some years later that I even heard the term ‘Neurodiversity,’” Fitzgerald said. “That really clicked some things in place for me. It was a turning point for me to think about the way I was wired as being a neurotype and an identity, and not a problem to be solved or a thing to be fixed.”  

For Fitzgerald, this was a revelation – and a total reversal of how anything related to mental health was treated in the past.  

But the signs were always there, and looking back, Fitzgerald sees them clearly – both in how it’s affected her view of the world at large, and how it’s affected her view of something deeply important to her – art.  

“It is interesting – I think that way my brain is wired has always affected my view on the world as well as my art. But I have not always been in good touch with what that wiring was,” Fitzgerald said. “So only in recent years do I feel that I am able to understand the degree to which that affects my view of the world, and how that is portrayed in art.”  

comic from spectrum with four squares. the top left has a person wearing a hospital gown holding their head with text reading, "Sometimes it takes a crash..." the next square show a person laying face down with text that says, “…to find a landing…” the next shows that person crouching on the ground with one foot on the floor, with text that says “…to find your footing…” the final square shows that person wearing a grey t-shirt and pants standing an a podium with a rainbow flag behind them with text reading, “…find your place.”

That’s a big part of how Fitzgerald relates to the world. Art, she said, is an essential part of her life.  

“When it comes down to it, art is the primary way that I process information and emotions. This has always been true, and not just with visual art. Music, writing, theater, any kind of creative expression – it all helps me to process things,” Fitzgerald said. “Consuming it, creating it, engaging with it, talking about it – all of these actions are extremely important to me. I can’t imagine life without being swirled up in the arts on a regular basis.”  

Today, Fitzgerald creates a cartoon called SPECTRUM that explores the multiple aspects of her journey and identity. She started the project after attending a class with Lynda Barry – somewhat accidentally, she noted.  

“I did not go there to learn cartooning specifically, but after the workshop I started drawing cartoons every day. I did not set out to draw a cartoon called SPECTRUM, or to cover specific topics such as Neurodivergence and Queerness. But that is what kept coming out on the page, so that is what I went with,” Fitzgerald said. “I have been drawing SPECTRUM cartoons ever since, and it has been a great tool for me to further process the world around me and to think more deeply about my interactions within it. It has also turned out to be a good tool for having conversations with other people around those subjects.”  

Cartoons like SPECTRUM are relevant to an emerging field known as Graphic Medicine, one that Fitzgerald says is still finding its identity. But it’s one she finds exciting for its diversity in application and accessibility. Graphic Medicine is, explained simply, the intersection between the realms of graphic arts (such as illustration and comics) and health and medicine. This can take many different forms, which is part of the appeal. It also does something that is central to a lot of work that Fitzgerald does – gives a voice to more people to share their experiences.  

“I was drawn to this field for many reasons,” Fitzgerald said. “The part of this field that is most appealing to me is the fact that engaging with and creating graphic works can increase understanding of topics such as overall health, medicine, mental health, identity, and community engagement. It can intersect and therefore help connect people and ideas from all different disciplines and perspectives.”  

Fitzgerald also notes that the principles of graphic medicine are in line with those of Universal Design and Universal Design for Learning in a few key ways – in giving people additional tools to communicate and understand concepts related to health and medicine, and in giving a voice to people receiving supports – allowing everyone the chance to learn together. In addition, graphic formats provide context and color to raw data, adding images and stories to the numbers.  

Fitzgerald is also working on a wordless graphic memoir called InQuest, which documents her perspective about the mental health system. She hopes the project will help increase understanding of that system from the perspective of people who have navigated it from the other side. “The message I find most important from that project is this: the perspective of a person experiencing a mental health crisis is valid and meaningful, and should not be dismissed,” she said. More information about that project can be found here

A spectrum comic that has someone not in frame ask, “So…can you tell me about your strengths?” A person that looks nervous responds, “Well I don’t mean to brag…but my amygdala is huge.”

Today, Fitzgerald works with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) as they attend college – something that has only recently become an option for many. That, Fitzgerald says, is because people have historically not included the voices of people with IDD in conversations about higher education.  

“I think this is partly because of that tendency in our society to separate people into categories based on what we are told they do or don’t know, or can or can’t do,” she said. “If we want to be truly inclusive, we need to see everyone else as a partner in this journey, and not only in a specific role of expert or learner. That is how we got here, so we need to expand our own perceptions as we continue to build the way forward.”  

In general, that is a uniting factor in a lot of what Fitzgerald does – working to ensure that voices of all people are heard and valued in the process.  

“One of the main things I want people to understand about mental health and IDD is that all people offer perspective that is valuable to the rest of the world. In our society, we tend to put certain perspectives up on a pedestal as being more important, and putting other perspectives in a category as being less valued,” she said. “We tend to separate people into categories of those with expertise to share, and those who need that expertise. That is oversimplified and can be quite dangerous. It is important for us to recognize the value in all human perspective, and to stop pathologizing everything that is outside of the norm. I think we have come a long way in this, but we still have a long way to go.”  

Read Fitzgerald’s ongoing comic, SPECTRUM, here

Thoughts from HDI’s Glen Jennings On Autism Acceptance Month

This April, we recognize Autism Acceptance Month. This is a month where we celebrate what autistic people are capable of and work to support mainstream acceptance of autistic people. But it’s also a time to recognize systemic obstacles to autistic people. 

And there are many. 

Think about the ways in which society has a normative model of social interaction, and all the ways in which someone who cannot follow that model might be at a disadvantage. If you’re in a job interview, not making enough eye contact to satisfy your interviewer may put you out of a job that you’d otherwise have, but forcing eye contact is often difficult for autistic people. Even against an otherwise equal neurotypical candidate, an autistic applicant is at a disadvantage through no fault of their own. Once in a job, work environments can be uninclusive. Office social structures can be difficult to navigate, office politics can leave us at a brutal disadvantage, especially among autistic people with customer-facing jobs. Factors like this are likely just one part of the reason autistic people have a catastrophically low employment rate. 

Though the social aspects of autism are the most visible to neurotypical people, there are a host of other ways that life in the workplace and beyond is challenging. Sensory issues can make it difficult to navigate the world. I always have at least two pairs of polarized sunglasses close to me because bright sunlight is hard to see in and gives me a massive headache. The general noise of loud environments with a lot of conversational buzz can quickly become overwhelming. And fluorescent lights – which are used in many offices, schools, or grocery stores – can cause headaches. Staying under them for too long is physically exhausting for me, and there are many times in my life where I’ve had no real choice but to do so. 

We navigate a world that was not built with us in mind. Acceptance Month is about moving towards one that is. 

But while that discussion is important, I think we shouldn’t end the conversation there. 

As an autistic person, I feel like I also have a lot of joy to celebrate this month. 

The national view of autism has, despite these obstacles, changed radically in the since I was diagnosed almost 25 years ago. And as someone who’s so fond of pointing out that autism isn’t all doom and gloom, it feels wrong to point only to the areas where we face obstacles. 

So I want to celebrate how far we’ve come. How people are more educated about autism in this day and age than ever before. And that only leads to better outcomes for autistic people – fewer obstacles to diagnosis, which have historically been many especially for women and people of color, more acceptance and understanding and wider access to accommodations and resources. 

The fight isn’t over, but we’ve made incredible progress. 

And more than that, I want to celebrate community. An incredible autistic community has formed over the past few decades, focusing on self-advocacy and embracing our authentic and autistic selves. 

We see the world in unique ways, we have special interests that allow us to love and appreciate the world around us with such depth, and we can bring such unique perspectives and sensibilities to the world. 

And the more we obliterate those obstacles, the more autistic people will grow to recognize and accept the potential they have. And by accepting that potential, you get a better world – whether you’re autistic or not.

This month, we celebrate autistic people. This month, we work for a future where autistic people feel heard and included, and where people value us like they would anyone else.

This article represents the opinions of the author and interviewee, not that of the University of Kentucky. 

Thoughts from HDI’s Brittany Granville On Autism Acceptance Month

While it’s important that autistic people have their place in society, Brittany Granville believes autism acceptance goes beyond that. She thinks it can save lives. 

“So many autistic people, particularly autistics of color, have died because people don’t understand common traits of neurodivergent people,” Granville, who works with HDI’s Innovative Supports for Autistic Workers (ISAW) project said.

And saving lives can be as simple as recognizing that just because someone acts differently than others doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with them. 

“For me, autism acceptance means that there is an effort to acknowledge that some people are just different and that’s okay,” she said. “It means that you could see someone stimming or pacing back and forth in public and not automatically assume they’re on drugs or ‘up to something’ and that you need to call the police on them.”

The intersection of multiple identities among autistic people is important too, Granville said. Autistic people have consistently been proven to be more likely to have LGBTQIA+ identities, and so discrimination against one group will always harm the other. In particular, she highlighted the harm that obstacles to affirming care for transgender autistic people can cause. 

“Autistic people already have high rates of depression and suicide,” she said. “Not being able to access medication or express themselves in a way that makes them feel themselves only makes it worse.”

In addition, Granville said autistic people of color are often overlooked. 

“There’s the lack of awareness and acceptance in communities of color,” she said. “These people are often considered ‘just like that’ or ‘weird’ or ‘crazy’ are most likely neurodivergent but ignored by their communities, the medical system, schools, and often the autistic community itself.”

Across the whole community, though, Granville noted that the best thing that can be done to support autistic people to let them be themselves.

“The best thing non-autistic people can do is try being as non-judgmental of the ‘weird’ people around them,” she said. “Learn what autism is and don’t try to make us ‘less autistic.’”

And a part of that is recognizing that autism can look very different from one person to another – or even the same person, depending on the day. 

“The autism spectrum isn’t linear. No one is ‘a little autistic’ or ‘low’ or ‘high’ functioning,” she said. “An autistic person’s abilities can fluctuate widely by the day or even hour. A person can be energetic and friendly at noon and totally withdrawn and unable to talk at 6 p.m. Changes can be due to sensory input and social factors or it could just be a ‘low battery day.’”

This article represents the opinions of the author and interviewee, not that of the University of Kentucky. 

Thoughts from HDI’s Bev Harp On Autism Acceptance Month

Bev Harp, Project Director for HDI’s Innovative Supports for Autistic Workers, remembers the days when the only rhetoric about autism was awareness rhetoric. 

And she remembers that awareness could mean radically different things to different people.

“To some people that meant being aware that autistic people exist

and that autism is a disability and needs to be accommodated. To others, it meant being aware that there are more and more of us being identified. You would see Autism Awareness buttons that said things like ‘1 in 88. Are you scared yet?’” She said. “This was the heyday of the vaccine panic, so you’d see those messages about poisoned and ruined children too. Pure fearmongering.”

In the past few years, as the number of recorded autism cases has climbed to 1 in 36, a new idea has started making the rounds. 

Instead of autism awareness, focus on autism acceptance. 

April is Autism Acceptance Month – a time for celebrating autistic people and advocating for a better world for them. And there are a few key differences between the two ideas – awareness is simply focused on knowledge of autism. One can be aware of autism. Acceptance, on the other hand, focuses on building a society that is inclusive and welcoming to autistic people. 

“We don’t need a ‘cure’ for autism, we don’t need to change autistic people so they seem more neurotypical, but what we need is to build a more equitable society where we can all thrive,” Harp said. “We are allowed to take up space and to participate in whatever facets of society we choose.”

And that means reframing the way that our society approaches autism and views autistic people. 

“We are now seeing more than 2 percent of our population fit the criteria for autism,” Harp said. “It’s time to stop thinking of autism as something to be remediated and recognize that it is and always has been one of the many natural and neutral ways to be human.”

And with that, there are many barriers to still overcome. 

“We still have around 85 percent unemployment. We still have people being tortured at the Judge Rotenberg Center and other institutions ‘for their own good.’ Kids being segregated, adults deprived of autonomy,” Harp said. “Of course, eugenics would be the ultimate form of ableism. The search for the ‘cause’ of autism has always been wrapped up in a fantasy of a world without autistic people. Somehow people can picture their autistic loved ones as still themselves yet also entirely different.” 

And while there is a lot of work to do, it is worth noting that autistic community has created a powerful shared community among autistic people. Harp said that the term autistic culture has had quite a journey over time, starting just as a term to describe art, traditions and practices common to autistic people. From there it came to represent more and more as autistic people shared more of their interests and passions. It became about those passions and how autistic people relate to them. 

“My favorite aspect of autistic culture is the pastime of taking any sort of source material (a movie, a conversation, a piece of feldspar), the simpler the better, and analyzing it and turning it over to see every angle and finding out what else in the world it echoes or connects with,” she said. “Loving a thing so much that you must attend to it properly, you must know that you’ve had every possible thought you could ever have had about it. It’s not in the nature of the thing (object, person, idea, activity), but in how an autistic person interacts with the thing.”

In the end, Harp knows understands that people calling for awareness mean well.  are sympathetic for autistic people, even when calling for awareness. She challenges those people to consider where their sympathy compassion is coming from and consider where it could be better used. 

“They see that the lives of autistic people can be tough,” Harp said. “Why is their best solution getting rid of us and not making the societal changes that would allow us all to live better lives? Why would we prefer to rewire a brain rather than change a policy? What values are we demonstrating here?

This article represents the opinions of the author and interviewee, not that of the University of Kentucky. 

Thoughts from HDI’s Walt Bower On Autism Acceptance Month

For Walt Bower, Preservice Training Coordinator for HDI, there’s an important first step to take when talking about how best to support autistic people. “People need to learn what autistic people want them to know,” Bower said. “That is why I prefer to talk about autism acceptance instead of autism awareness.” Bower’s perspective falls in line with a shift that’s becoming more and more popular in how organizations and people are talking about autism. And April, which used to be called Autism Awareness Month, is consequently being reframed as Autism Acceptance Month for a lot of people.   

“I think this shift reflects input from autistic individuals and other community leaders as well as our commitment to sharing how we can promote advocacy for human and civil rights for all usautistic people,” he said. And that change in language is important, Bower said. Often, those calling for awareness do so without the input of autistic people. As a result, it’s been less helpful.  

“Sometimes, autism awareness campaigns, albeit well-intentioned, can make people who are not familiar with autism afraid of autistic people,” Bower said. “It has done more harm than good…It’s presented autistic people as bad, or autism as something that needs to be cured.” So if it doesn’t need to be cured, how should people approach autism?  

According to Bower, a big part of it is accepting that autism isn’t abnormal. “I think we need to think about disability and autism as part of life,” Bower said. “We need to recognize disability and autism as one integral part of diversity. Autistic people can get stigmatized as just being autistic when autistic people have many different identities, as leaders, students, workers, employers, parents, family members. Autistic people have and lead rich and fulfilling lives that are shared with the people all around us.”  

He also highlighted some of the models through which disability is viewed – in particular, the medical model of disability, which views disability solely through a lens of conditions that need medical intervention, a problem that must be solved, and the social model, which thinks of autism as just a part of human diversity that deserves to be accommodated. Bower also spoke of another model that he’s intrigued with that tries to find a way to incorporate elements of both models. He’s excited to see where those discussions lead and to learn more in the future. But he thinks it’s important that those discussions always seek to include a diverse range of people with disabilities, autistic people included.  

“The slogan of the disability rights movement is ‘Nothing about us without us,’ which means that autistic people need to be involved whenever autism is discussed,” Bower said. “We want to make sure that autistic people are included in conversations about autism, whether those conversations are about lives of autistic people or autistic people as a whole in our society…Autistic people know the problems that autistic people face, and have a lot of ideas how to solve them.”  

This article represents the opinions of the author and interviewee, not that of the University of Kentucky.